National Journal had a cover story last week that seems to have gone offline that saw America in decline. Ross Douthat had some doubts. Wending to a pragmatic third way, I think the salient point is that America's been in relative decline for a long time. As Robert Keohane points out in After Hegemony, the real "unipolar moment" came in 1945-46 when the United States accounted for something like half of world economic output, had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and much of Europe and Asia was rubble.
Writing in the late 1980s, Paul Kennedy observed that both the USA and the USSR were experiencing relative decline and that the world order was shifting from a bipolar one to a multipolar one in which Japan, China, and a consolidating Europe would all play more prominent roles. What Kennedy missed, of course, is that the USSR was about to enter an extremely acute period of decline. Thus, from 1989-1993 or so, the #2 power declined so rapidly relative to the #1 power that America's continued slow-but-steady relative decline was masked.
This led to the Clinton years, where the United States played the role of hegemon, but did so relatively cautiously. Neoconservatives spent eight years fulminating that Clinton was being too cautious and missing the opportunity of a world-historical lifetime. In March 2001, Charles Krauthammer explained:
In the liberal internationalist view of the world, the U.S. is merely one among many--a stronger country, yes, but one that has to adapt itself to the will and the needs of "the international community." That is why the Clinton Administration was almost manic in pursuit of multilateral treaties--on chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear testing, proliferation. No matter that they could not be enforced. Our very signing would show us to be a good international citizen.
This is folly. America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.
There was certainly folly lurking somewhere in that column, but it wasn't in Bill Clinton's caution. Green Lantern foreign policy has merely proven that Clinton had this right. We're stronger than anyone else, but not nearly so strong that it doesn't benefit us to play nicely with others.